Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Party Politics and
Workers' Discontent

Working-class voters experienced the campaign fever of 1908 in diverse ways. Some marched in Taft parades organized by the National Association of Manufacturers, while carrying banners that proclaimed “Prosperity First!” Others sat in barber shops reading the pro-Bryan literature sent there by the AFL, debating the Federation's program and the Democrats' virtues. In cities like Detroit, the talk centered not on Bryan or Taft, but on the congressional campaign of union activist William Mahon, in a race that pitted AFL members against nonunion workers at firms like the Ford Auto Company.

The 1908 elections highlighted the concerns of workingmen in unprecedented ways and thus presented workers with unusual opportunities. Yet they also took place amidst a rapidly changing political world. Scholars such as Paul Kleppner have shown that the ethnocultural and religious associations that so dominated Gilded Age politics faded rapidly after 1900. The decline in voting participation and the attacks on party domination from so many different corners, meanwhile, threatened to make politics less democratic, particularly for working-class voters. Because the parties remained the main institutions capable of attempting mass mobilizations, a decline in their power made it more difficult for nonelites to influence the American state. In this context, the AFL's campaign program was potentially quite important, providing a way to mobilize large numbers of voters who might otherwise fall into the great “party of nonvoters.”1

Still, the AFL campaign program encountered a number of obstacles. Rank-and-file trade unionists often responded with enthusiasm, but their excitement did not always rebound to the benefit of the official AFL strategy. Workers had their own and often rivaling conceptions of effective political tactics and strategy. Furthermore, the AFL's plan stressed national-level elections, and especially the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. This focus potentially clashed with working-class agendas at the state and local levels. And last of all, the AFL and the Democratic Party were not the only groups seeking to

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1
Paul Kleppner, Continuity and Change in Electoral Politics, 1893–1928 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987), 224–5.

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